…In Which I Go Full Nerd

Jet lag is a funny thing. Right now it actually seems to be working in my favour; it’s managed to knock a couple of bad habits out of me. Specifically, these happen to be the not entirely unrelated habits of going to bed too late (then making it later by reading for a good long while) and getting up too late. Right now I seem to be fighting to keep my eyes open by around nine, and then being wide awake by seven. Which is more or less the position I found myself in on Sunday. Since day one at Google camp was a couple of days away I thought I’d check out my immediate surroundings.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but there isn’t actually a lot to do in Mountain View. One of the things there is to do, however, is the computer history museum, which I’d been told is exactly as awesome as it sounds. In case my meaning isn’t clear: really awesome. There is no sarcasm here. Look at my face. Awesome. This is not my sarcastic face. Awesome. Face. Awesome.

I have a rental car, but the brakes scare the shit out of me, and the place didn’t look too far away, so I decided to walk. Now, I’d been warned that no one walks in America, but I wasn’t quite prepared for it to be true. I must have walked 5 miles on Sunday and saw a grand total of perhaps 3 other pedestrians, and found that drivers looked at me as though I was a crazy person. I think perhaps one reason for this might be that the pavements (or sidewalks, if you like) are… well… shit. Anytime you have a height difference of more than an inch between two slabs… that’s bad.

Slightly thankful that there were no other pedestrians to see me trip, I arrived at the building in question. Externally, it’s kind of neat. You might mistake it for the headquarters of some hip new tech startup. If it wasn’t for the big sign saying “Computer history Museum” outside, obviously. Inside, though, it reminded me quite of bit of the Science Museum (“which science museum?” “The Science Museum”). It’s nowhere near as grandiose, and has a much narrower focus, but the comparison feels apt.

The scope of the exhibits is quite impressive, starting with slide rules and abaci, moving though Babbage (oh, I’ll come back to Babbage), on to Turing and right up to the present day. Here are a couple of examples of things which made me smile:

The Altair 8800, quite an important machine in the history of Microsoft, of which the fictionalised version of Steve Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley says “I never had any problem with the Altair… until I tried to use it.”

You know what’s better than that, though? A computer made out of wood. If you bought an Apple I you received a box of parts and some schematics. You hade to supply the case yourself. You know what else is awesome? UNIX is awesome:

You see? There’s a badge and everything. What says awesome more than a badge? Oh wait, I know:

Oh yeah. That’s right. I bet you wish you were cool enough to have that licence plate. As a side note: I wonder if anyone does have that licence plate, since I assume this one isn’t real. Furthermore: what kind of car would you put that on? This is fodder for Pimp My Ride right here. They should get on that (“Yo, we heard you like UNIX…”).

There was a lot more at the museum. Too much, in fact. I arrived about an hour after it opened and literally left as they locked the door behind me. I probably skipped about half of the section on the internet, and only had time for a brief look at the exhibit on the history of computer chess. Did I mention that they have half of Deep Blue? They also have something else very, very cool, and that’s one of the two Babbage Difference Engines which we only very recently developed the capability to actually build:

You really can’t do justice to this thing in a photograph. It’s beautiful. A marvel of engineering, it actually works exactly as Babbage said it would, and he built it entirely on paper. In 1849.ย Somebody should build an Analytical Engine. That, my friends, would truly be something.

One last thing:

I think this might be THE teapot.

Update: Someone is building an analytical engine!

Another update: there is a follow up post here.

57 thoughts on “…In Which I Go Full Nerd

  1. Since I haven’t yet had a chance to visit the Computer History Museum, I watched a documentary on it on TV a few weeks ago. True story. Complete nerd.

    Love this post. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. There’s a documentary? Really? Where might a person find this documentary? When you say nerd here I’m going to assume that you mean “awesome” ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Absolutely! Go nerd or go home. And by nerd, I guess I mean go to the computer museum.

      2. Well, it wasn’t that the ENTIRE documentary was just on the museum…just part of it. But, still…way awesome. It was the most interesting part of the show. Not sure what station it was on (History? Discovery? Something like that, I think). I will look for it, though, and when I find it (which, of course, I will because I’m a geek…), I’ll be sure to let you know! ๐Ÿ™‚

        P.S. In my life, “nerd” always means “awesome”. Always.

      3. Sounds like you have a very healthy way of thinking ๐Ÿ™‚

        Sounds like one more recent for me to get Discovery reconnected as soon as I get back to London…

    1. It would indeed, but sadly I missed the demonstration. I’m debating whether it’s worth paying the admission again just to see it. Alternatively, the other difference engine is in the Science Museum in London, so perhaps I can just go and watch it there.

  2. Sadly, you’re right, no one does walk in America. Unless you live in a place that’s “walking friendly,” and most places aren’t. They’re centered around cars.

    The museum sounds neat though. I’ll have to add it to the list of places I need to visit, but will know nothing about.

  3. It makes you wonder doesn’t it? How did we ever get along without our gadgets. My Iphone and Ipad keep me connected but thats about as much Apple as I want. I’m watching my Media Centre on my LED TV and typing this on my laptop. The sound is fed into the B and O stereo via the Media Centre and I can chose what I download and watch from there. When the altair came out, we had 4 free to air channels and that was it. It feels quite stone aged doesn’t it?

  4. quite interesting / have to admit , that part about being a ppedestrian got me reading on as I have been one all the life

  5. Teapot! TEAPOT! Oh man, this was just so much fuel to my technology geekdom. Thank youuuu.

    Also, google camp? Google camp? Google… camp?
    Seems like I’ll be reading your blog for a while longer, sir…

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it ๐Ÿ™‚

      Google camp might not be the right phrase, exactly. Google orientation is probably more accurate, strictly speaking, but it’s pretty awesome, all the same.

  6. Wow! Thanks for the comments guys! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I think this post has had more hits than just about everything else I’ve ever written here combined, so perhaps I should let my inner nerd more often. I’m glad you all enjoyed it. I have a bunch more pictures, so perhaps I’ll write a follow up post now that I know people ARE interested.

    1. It’s very true there are tones of people online who love nerdom…. because most nerds are found on the computer! Not to mention blogging. It would be great to read some follow ups… we ARE interested ๐Ÿ˜›

  7. That plate needs to be on Bruce Willis’ car… Live free or die [hard] ๐Ÿ˜€

    also, I think the title is what got you all the comments, its deff what drew me to read it. good post.

    1. Interesting, I wonder how I can use that without milking it too much. Inserting the word “nerd” into other film references, perhaps? (this one was a Tropic Thunder references, if you din’t pick that up.)

  8. I will stick to the badge, I love UNIX but I am not putting it on car, who knows what will happen to my car when its alone, may be an insecure windows might just take the frustration out.

  9. You must not have noticed that you have been Freshly Pressed. That is one of the reasons you have so many hits and the other of course being that everyone loves a nerd.

    1. I noticed, but I’d already received more hits and comments than usual when it happened, so obviously I did something right. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. We had a Star Trek exhibit traveling through and what I enjoyed most about it was the explanations and examples of how various Star Trek gadgets, designed by engineers on staff, had influenced later technology in the real world. Apparently NASA even studied the bridge design.

  11. Going full nerd is way more interesting than not going “full nerd” โ–ฌ very interesting post. Nice to see cool innovations of the past ^_^

  12. I like this article if I’m ever in the area I may have to visit. Hope the numberplate is out there somewhere.

  13. Gotta love that computer made of wood. Reminds me of the dentures they used to make for George Washington…again, wood. Great post!

  14. Unix is awesome! This museum looks pretty cool. Oh, and the reason people don’t walk anywhere in the US is because typically everything is too far spaced out. At least here in Texas it is…

  15. Hey, I work there! I was the curator for the PCs, Graphics, Games and Punched Cards alcoves.

    I have envy every time I go to the Science Museum myself. I love that place and when I was there the first time the two Babbage Engines were about 5 feet away from each other. I asked my boss at the time, who was over-seeing the construction of the new Engine, if he had an extra-long cam shaft so I could network the things!

    Glad you had a good time!

  16. I live in San Jose and I happened to see your blog on freshly pressed. I thought “I wonder where this Computer History Museum is?” Turns out it’s in Mountain View! So I went this afternoon- saw the UNIX pin, the teapot, everything! They only charged $6 since I came at the end of the day. Excellent value! Thanks for the tip.

    1. Glad I could help ๐Ÿ™‚

      If there is anything else of note to see in the valley, I’d be much obliged if you could, as a native, point me in its general direction.

    1. Oh, now there’s a controversial thing to say. The world has an abundance of institutions making that claim. The Computer History museum itself can’t seem to make it’s mind up, though at one point it does seem to grudgingly admit that British intelligence was the first during the Second World War. I’d like to believe that, but I’m always open to being wrong.

      Do you know the name of the computer Iowa State built? I’d be curious to look it up.

  17. I’ve visited that museum every year since 2000, and I think I probably know every inch of it by heart. You would have loved the section of it on the internet, believe me.
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  18. Yeah, I guess you kind of have to be a tech-y nerd to really appreciate that museum. I may have just stayed in my hotel room.

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